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Building A Living Wellbeing Laboratory: Insights From Leading Hospitality Exec Denise Bober

Blog Pic Denise BoberMagical isn’t a word typically associated with business. Yet in my recent conversation with executive Denise Bober, the word popped up–in fact, magical is how she describes her organization’s culture, a living laboratory for wellbeing.

Denise is Vice President at The Breakers, a luxury resort based in Palm Beach, Florida. Much like my interview with former Chief Learning Officer Alicia Mandel, I found Denise to be passionate, forthright, and exceptionally clear about using her life and leadership to uplift people at work and in the community. She is part of a growing global movement of leaders who strive to create environments where people thrive, and I’m delighted to share her story in Wisdom Works’ Face of Wellbeing Leadership series.

Me: What does it mean for you to lead wellbeing?

Denise: Foremost, leading wellbeing is about treating myself with kindness. If I’m fulfilling myself with kind thoughts then I’m naturally a happier person. And I’m better able to share that happiness with others.

Being a leader of wellbeing begins with an internal look. This means examining how I think and talk about myself, getting rid of negative thoughts, and using kinder words when describing myself. You’ve got to start with yourself because if you don’t, in my opinion there’s no way to inspire others.

Me: As you look at your life overall, when did leading wellbeing become important to you?

Denise: As long as I can remember I was physically active. I have an overwhelming amount of physical energy, and if I don’t release it on a daily basis I feel tired, sick, or mentally blue. As a girl, I participated in track, softball, volleyball, basketball, and swimming. Coming from a full-blooded Italian family, I was also fortunate to have a mother who cooked Mediterranean style, with lots of fresh and seasonal vegetables and fish.

As we kicked off our commitment to wellbeing at The Breakers over a decade ago, I started looking further inside myself, beyond exercise and diet. What are my vices? What behaviors do I need to correct because they are no longer healthy for me? How can I be kinder to myself? It’s been an ongoing journey.

And that’s what we tell everybody in our organization: being well is a lifelong journey. Pick one thing you want to improve. It can be anything that matters to you personally, from creating a better relationship to putting less cream in your coffee. When you’ve accomplished that one thing, pick something else.

Me: Small changes can have a big impact!

Denise: You are so right. For example, years ago I went through a period of juggling a lot on my plate. Although I ate healthy, I wasn’t eating right. I made every excuse to skip breakfast, and I only ate lunch if I had time. I was on a glucose rollercoaster that wasn’t sustainable, falsely fueling my day with endless amounts of coffee. When I went home from work, I felt lethargic; I definitely wasn’t giving my best energy to my family. So I decided to make a change. My goal? To create better eating habits.

Today I never skip breakfast. I snack mid-morning. I eat lunch. I snack again in the afternoon, and I eat dinner. I keep my glucose level even-keeled. The results? I’m energized throughout my workday, as well as at home with family and friends. My biometric scores are excellent year after year, and I’ve recovered from a few physical storms (a major surgery) and emotional storms (the loss of close loved ones) faster and stronger than before.

Me: Let’s talk about The Breakers. The organization is known for employee wellbeing. How do you know you’re on the right path?

Denise: Our organization is an independently owned family resort, with 2,000 team members strong. The wellbeing and fulfillment of our team is top priority. We make an unprecedented investment to empower employees with the right tools and resources to enrich their lives with healthy living practices. We see our organization as a living laboratory for building a wellness culture.

Over the past ten years, I honestly feel like we passed a tipping point from implementing wellness activities to becoming something magical. Wellness became core to who we are.

Me: Last year I interviewed Todd Walter, CEO of Red Door. He used the word “magic” when talking about his work culture, too. Can you say more about what that means?

Denise: Something magical happens when people start choosing wellness behaviors naturally, not out of compliance. For instance, when we implemented a portion control strategy to encourage healthy eating years ago, I heard employees give our cafeteria staff a hard time about not getting enough food. Now I often hear, “Don’t give me that much food. It’s more than I need.” “My goal is 20% protein, 40% fruits and vegetables, and 40% grains. So give me less protein today.” Employees are speaking a language of wellness that matters to them.

And they are driving wellness efforts on their own. As an example, one of our employees, Matt White, climbs our stairs every day, from the basement to the hotel’s top floor. Somebody asked, “Why don’t we ALL climb the stairs?” Not long after, employees decorated the stairwell with inspirational signs and bright colors. They created incentives for people who reached the top. They named the activity the Tower Trek. “Trekking the tower” is a daily ritual because of the passion of our employees, not a push from Human Resources.

That’s the magic … when, instead of resistance to wellness, people ask for the tools to be healthier on their own.

Me: A generative shift occurs when wellness is desired, rather than coerced. Wellness can then become a cultural value. How are your efforts impacting The Breakers’ performance?

Denise: Consider health plan costs alone: the trend for medical and pharmacy expenditures is running about 9.5 percent nationally over the past five years; for us it is about 3.2 percent. That’s a big savings.

Perhaps more importantly, our guests tell us time and time again we have world-class service. They feel cared for by our employees. This is a beautiful property, Renee, but our success essentially boils down to service. And that depends on our people.

Our hotel also has an 82% employee retention rate, unheard of in our industry. Our financial results are quite strong, and our employee engagement scores are in the same class as Fortune 100 companies. Employee wellbeing is on the agenda at our Board of Directors’ meetings. It is simply that important to us.

Want to meet other thriving leaders or become one yourself? Take a look at our Face of Wellbeing Leadership series. Or contact me at renee@wisdom-works.com to learn how we help leaders boost impact by bringing their best selves to life and work, and foster organizations where growth and thriving is the norm.